This is a guest post by Monika Bednarek, a linguist who has extensively analyzed US TV series. She is the author of Language and Television Series and the editor of Creating Dialogue for TV, a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. She has created a companion website at www.syd-tv.com and tweets at @corpusling.
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The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?
Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.
There had been backstage musicals before A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975. But as far as I can tell, there had never been a backstage musical—or, really, any Broadway musical—that merrily sprinkled fucks and shits throughout the dialogue, which is spoken by auditioning singers and dancers as they bare their souls to an unseen director.* And there had never been a song in a Broadway musical with a title like “Tits and Ass.” In fact, less than a dozen years before A Chorus Line opened, uttering the phrase “tits and ass” in a public forum had gotten the comedian Lenny Bruce hauled off to jail.
Following hard upon Iva Cheung’s delicious food-based ethnic slurs post, we turn to disparaging and sweary food truck trademarks.
First, a recent and timely controversy over food service-related branding. Local officials in Keene, New Hampshire were dismayed when signage popped up for a new Vietnamese restaurant, PHO KEENE GREAT.
On Friday, after President Trump abruptly canceled a June 12 meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, reporters scrambled to file updates. One of them was Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, who attempted to get a quote from Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk), an expert on nuclear nonproliferation. The response wasn’t quite what Dale had hoped for, but it was newsworthy in its own way.
Goat rodeo seems like an amusing but innocuous way to describe the chaotic situation that Lewis was alluding to. On the surface, it appears more family friendly than its time-honored synonyms clusterfuck, fuckup, snafu (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up), fubar (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition), and shitshow. Dig a little deeper, though, and you discover the sweary origins of the term. Continue reading
Our last bitch chronicle ended by observing that son of a bitch is semantically poetic. The sounds of son of a bitch can be poetic, too. It takes stress at different points for different expressive purposes: son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch. So, there’s value in the full and precise articulation of the phrase, but also pragmatic value in truncating the phrase, or extending it, or playing with it euphemistically.